CME Tour Championship delivers three big winners


NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko was in tears afterward over her triumphs.

Inbee Park breathed a sigh of relief knowing she qualified for the LPGA Hall of Fame.

Cristie Kerr was doused in champagne by some of her American Solheim Cup teammates in a joyous celebration.

Emotions burst forth like fireworks around the 18th green Sunday after a pressure-packed finish at the CME Group Tour Championship at Tiburon Golf Club, where winning never seemed so wonderfully abundant in the women’s game.

Ko won the Race to the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Rolex Player of the Year Award in agonizingly tight battles with Park that came down to the 72nd hole. Ko also won the money-winning title.

Park won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average, a prize intensified in meaning because it delivered her the one point she needed to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame.

Kerr claimed her 18th LPGA title, her second this year, and a $500,000 winner’s check.

“For it to come down to the last hole, the last group, the last putt, it’s been a great season for the LPGA,” Ko said.

Ko and Park are known for their unflappable demeanors, but they both betrayed emotions in ways we rarely see from them. They revealed just how much pressure had built on them over the week.

Ko three-putted the 72nd hole and marched to the scoring area uncertain whether the last 4-footer she missed cost her everything hanging in the balance. She ended up tying for seventh, one shot worse than Park, who finished sixth.

When Ko was informed leaving scoring that she had, in fact, become the youngest winner of the Rolex Player of the Year Award and that once again she had claimed the CME Globe’s $1 million prize as winner of the season-long points race, she broke into tears.

“It’s probably the most I’ll cry on TV, ever,” Ko said.

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Ko’s sister, Sura, wiped her eyes with a towel.

“I think what triggered it was what kind of tough day it was,” Ko said.

And what kind of joy there was in knowing that just about everyone on her “team” was there to enjoy her success. Her mother, Tina, her father, Gil Hong, her sister Sura, her swing coach David Leadbetter and her agents Michael Yim and Jay Burton were there.

“I know for sure I couldn’t be here without my team,” Ko said. “They have definitely helped keep me grounded.”

How close were the battles with Park? Ko finished two points ahead of Park in the Rolex Player of the Year points race. Park finished three hundredths of a point (69.41 to 69.44) ahead of Ko winning the Vare Trophy.

Ko continues to stockpile “youngest ever” successes this year. She became the youngest man or woman in professional golf to rise to No. 1 in the world rankings in February. She became the youngest winner of a major championship in women’s golf claiming the Evian Championship in September. Now she can add youngest Rolex Player of the Year winner and youngest winner of the money title to her many youthful triumphs.

Park, 27, was also reminded how young she remains after claiming the Vare Trophy to meet the points requirement needed to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame.

“I thought the youngest at everything was Lydia,” Park cracked.

Park will become eligible for the LPGA Hall of Fame after completing 10 full seasons on tour. She’ll reach that after next year.

It seemed fitting that Ko and Park should both leave Sunday with meaningful prizes. They pushed each other to such heights this year. They both won five LPGA titles, with Park claiming a pair of majors and Ko breaking through to win her first major in such spectacular fashion, shooting a final-round 63 to win the Evian.

A year ago, Park watched a similar battle for big prizes end with Stacy Lewis sweeping the Rolex POY Award, Vare Trophy and money title at CME.

“If  we were to walk away from this year being just beaten at the post again after what happened last year, that would have been a bitter pill to swallow, because Inbee has been playing such good golf,” said Brad Beecher, Park’s caddie.

Beecher believes Park makes Ko better and vice versa.

“They both push each other,” he said. “No matter what week it is, one of them is playing outstanding golf. It inspires the other one to play better. I don't know that it’s rivalry where they feel like, `I must beat her.” I think it’s more like, `I want to be as good as her. I want to do what she's doing.’”

Jason Hamilton, Ko’s caddie, said Park brings out the best in Ko.

“Inbee’s a great player,” Hamilton said. “Whenever you see you are in a pairing with Inbee, it’s a plus. She drags you up. She has that effect on people.”

Like Ko, Park wasn’t immune to pressure Sunday. She showed how much stress was building when she thumped the turf with a club after pulling a shot at the 11th hole. It was a brief display of mild frustration that would have gone unnoticed with any other player other than the normally stoic Park.

“I think it’s probably the most pressure I’ve ever felt,” Park said.

Park said the $1 million jackpot wasn’t foremost on her mind. She wanted that point the Vare Trophy, Rolex Player of the Year or CME Group Tour Championship title would bring her.

“The Hall of Fame was really on my mind all week,” Park said. “Going into the Hall of Fame is something I've been dreaming of all my life.”

Park didn’t want to go into next year knowing she needed one point to qualify for the Hall of Fame.

“If I don’t do it this year, I have to put so much pressure on myself to get one point next year,” Park said. “Maybe wait all year. This definitely takes a lot of pressure off me. I can really enjoy golf even more.”

At 38, Kerr topped a terrific year. After the birth of her son, Mason, late in 2013, Kerr was winless last year while adjusting to a new life as mother. She reminded her peers this year she isn’t done making her mark yet. She also won the Kia Classic in March and was a force at the Solheim Cup in September.

“I love what I do,” said Kerr, who now has 20 of the 27 points needed to qualify for the Hall of Fame. “I certainly love days like today.”

Kerr beat Ha Na Jang and Gerina Piller by one shot with Lexi Thompson finishing two back. Kerr pulled away holing a 40-foot birdie at 15th hole and a 12-foot eagle at the 17th.

“Everybody played good golf,” Kerr said. “I think CME is the winner.”